My First and Last Meet As A Celiac

This past weekend, I had my first meet since my official diagnosis of Celiac Disease. Oddly enough, it was the last meet of my swimming career, since I am a senior in college and my four years of NCAA eligibility are up. I had several concerns going into the meet. What was I going to eat when the team stopped at Jimmy Johns for lunch on the drive to the meet? What was I going to eat for dinner the first night when the team had pasta catered to the hotel? What would I eat during the meet, when I got hungry and the snack tub was full of gluten-filled bars?

my team after winning the conference title

I decided not to stress too much about my concerns, considering this was the last meet of my entire (15 year) swimming career. I wanted to focus, and I was interested to see how eating gluten-free would affect my swimming. I had been feeling stronger leading up to the meet, but I was unsure if that would carry over to the meet.

Lucky for me, my coaches worked hard to make sure I was well-fed during the meet, and I ended up having the best meet of my life! I swam times that I only saw in my dreams. At the end of my races, I felt like a completely different person than how I had felt before my diagnosis. I felt alert and strong throughout my entire races.

I am so thankful that I found out about having Celiac Disease before my last meet, and that I was able to fix the problem. I ended my career on a better note than I could have ever expected. Not only did I have a great meet myself, but my team also had an exceptional meet. We won our fifth conference title in a row! I am thrilled to report that being gluten-free helped me swim fast and exceed any of my expectations.

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My Diagnosis of Celiac Disease

The journey to discovering my Celiac Disease started about three years ago. And trust me, it was a long and complicated one. It all started when I noticed abnormal amounts of hair loss, so I went to the doctor. He ran some blood tests and found that my iron count was low. In other words, I was anemic. The doctor told me to take three iron pills a day until I started feeling better, and he sent me on my way. About a year later, I had backed off the amounts of iron I was taking (mostly because I was lazy and no one was there to make me take them).

However, I started to experience symptoms when I swam. I am a Division I swimmer in college, and I do not like having anything hurt my performance. After a hard set or race, I felt weak. It was not a weak feeling that comes from being tired, because I have experienced that feeling many times before. It was much worse. The symptom that stood out to me the most was when I experienced blurry vision after my races. At the worst times, I could not make out peoples faces who were standing right in front of me. I also could not pay attention to what people where saying to me. The best way to describe this feeling was ‘fuzzy.’ I knew something was not right.

This time, I decided to go to my athletic trainer and tell her about my symptoms. She sent me to the university’s athletic doctor, and he ran some more blood tests. Again, the tests showed I had low iron. The doctor put me on two iron pills a day, and told me to come back in a few months for follow up tests. When I went back, my iron was still low, and I was still experiencing the same symptoms. Again, he told me to take three iron pills a day and sent me to a nutritionist to make sure I was eating the right food to allow proper absorption. I followed all the rules set by the nutritionist and took my iron pills everyday, but months later I was still experiencing the same symptoms.

When I went back to the athletic doctor, my iron had improved, but my ferritin (stored iron) count was still extremely low. He said now that my iron was back to the low range of normal, my swimming performance should be fine. It was not fine. I still felt weird after hard sets and races, and I knew something was wrong. I was frustrated that the doctor was telling me everything would be okay if I continued to take my iron pills daily. Obviously, I was taking my iron pills, and my ferritin levels were not improving. The doctor even suggested sending me to a sports therapist to talk about overcoming the fear of getting weak I was having during sets. He felt the sports therapist would be able reduce the ‘fuzzy’ symptoms I was experiencing. I was livid, because I knew that what I experiencing was not in my head.

After months of frustration, my mom called the athletic doctor to tell him that he needed to do something more, because my symptoms were not going away. He finally agreed to send me to a Hematologists (blood doctor) to see why my ferritin levels were not improving. The first thing the Hematologist decided to test for was Celiac Disease. He ran loads of blood tests, and the results came back positive for Celiac. Then, they sent me to a Gastroenterologist to perform an Endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis. Minutes after the Endoscopy, the doctor confirmed my fears. I had Celiac Disease, and I needed to start a gluten-free diet as soon as possible.

Because I have been an athlete my entire life, I have definitely developed a love for food. My diagnosis with Celiac came as a huge disappointment. I love pasta, bread, cookies, cake, pancakes and everything else gluten-filled. When the doctor said it was time to cut out gluten completely (for the rest of my life), I stood in front of my cabinet staring at all the food that I could no longer eat wondering where to go from there. I used to eat cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich and chips for lunch, granola bars for snack, and pasta for dinner. All of these foods contain gluten, so things are definitely going to change for me. The first few days I began eating gluten-free I was starving. I had salad for lunch and chicken with veggies for dinner. The rest of the day I was extremely hungry and lost.

Luckily, my parents went to Trader Joes and brought me lots of gluten-free substitutes. I am excited to start trying these new foods and sharing what I think with my readers! Also, I am only four days into being gluten-free, and I already feel better. I feel more awake and alert. I guess this diagnosis is not all bad!